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Author Alessandra Narváez Varela combines her passion for poetry, writing and teaching into her latest novel, “Thirty Talks Weird Love,” a book that she hopes will inspire those who have lost girls and women to the streets of Juárez.
“(This) is to whom this book is dedicated: despite their grief, and their tragic losses, they continue fighting for justice,” Narváez Varela said. “They will never give up. The courage of these Juarenses, as well as the resilience and resourcefulness of others whose fight entails putting food on the table, is inspiring.”
From 1993 to 2003, more than 300 young women were brutally murdered in Juárez, according to Texas Monthly and other news publications. Some were killed by husbands and boyfriends, but many died at the hands of unknown killers. In many cases, they disappeared from the streets in broad daylight, and their bodies later turned up in the desert.
Narváez Varela uses her novel, which is El Paso Matters Book Club’s first read, to talk openly about the risks girls face while growing up in Juárez.
El Paso Matters recently talked with Narváez Varela about her book, her career and her ties to the Borderland. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
El Paso Matters: For those who aren’t as familiar with you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Narváez Varela: I’m a poet from Ciudad Juárez, México, who teaches creative writing at UTEP. I’m also a paseña and fronteriza, who took a few twists and turns to get to poetry, writing and teaching. These three callings led me to publish “Thirty Talks Weird Love.” Without my students at Anthony High School (where I was a tutor) and UTEP, I wouldn’t have been inspired to write a novel for a young adult audience. Another force that brought me here are my parents, Amanda and Carlos, who’ve run Los Colorines, a Mexican restaurant downtown, for more than 20 years. They’re my everything; so is my first reader, el amor de mi vida, Paul. Without him and his faith in my writing, “Thirty” wouldn’t have been drafted in January 2019 on my kitchen table.
El Paso Matters: What are some key themes you would like readers, particularly El Pasoans, to take away from your book?
Narváez Varela: One theme to take away from “Thirty” is to view ourselves with kindness. View all of the selves we’ve been with awe and appreciation. In the book, Anamaria gets a visitor from the future to help her do this; we can only rely on our memories to know we did the best we could. And looking to the present, I’d invite the reader to think, “I am enough.” I am more than enough. I’m perfect. This sounds cursi, but, from the moment of conception, so many things can go awry (including not being!). And yet, here we are, in one piece, vivitos y coleando. Self-acceptance is a process, and that’s fine. So is asking for help when that perfect piece that we are might still, well, fall to pieces.
El Paso Matters: What’s your favorite line in the book and why?
Narváez Varela: “That’s why I use a heart: to feel my pulse, an answer: a girl is a human.” This line reflects a truth that brings Anamaria conflict as she tries to deal with the disappearance of her friend. Why conflict? She learns that being human, which should be the ultimate equalizer, doesn’t guarantee the safety of certain girls. This truth is heartbreaking. It is also based on research done by journalists and scholars. An example is the survey “How Much Press Are You Worth?” by the Columbia Journalism Review. If I went missing, I’d be worth five news stories, with the press barely covering my story. I can only imagine what it feels like to be “worth” zero stories. Yet, this is not an exercise in imagination for many families in Ciudad Juárez. This is their reality.
El Paso Matters: Some of your books and writings deal with El Paso, immigrants, Hispanic culture and growing up in a binational region. What is the key to keeping readers that are not from the area interested in these topics?
Narváez Varela: I think the key is to get our community interested and invested first! Our unique bicultural, binational comunidad is unlike any other, and creative work that is being produced here is equally distinctive. Until we foster a strong sense of pride amongst ourselves first, people who don’t live here won’t feel it either. This is not to say we’re not proud, but we need literature and art to reach people in our city who might not have the time or resources to go to a reading or exhibition far from their homes. Widening access can also inspire those paseños and Juarenses who’ve been told “you’re not (or you can’t) be a writer/artist” to pursue their goals because, if one of their own can do it, they can too!
El Paso Matters: What is something unique about El Paso-Juárez, the border or Southwest region that inspired or is portrayed in your book?
Narváez Varela: As a proud, native Juarense, I’m interested in questioning the sensationalist headlines that stigmatize Ciudad Juárez. It’s our home! One that thrives despite it all, especially the interests of the American and Mexican governments, which often put the city and its citizens in an impossible position. And yet, Juarenses stand strong, venga lo que venga.
El Paso Matters: As an author, what do you make of the current national debate regarding the censorship of books at school libraries?
Narváez Varela: I believe this conversation should be focused on trusting our teachers and librarians. They know how to guide young readers through difficult topics in literature. They also know how to have difficult conversations by virtue of interacting daily with students. Why? Students are often exposed to difficult situations at home or through the internet. Discussing topics that affect their lives through books, at school, is a transformative experience. It’s protective, too. To me, those who pursue censorship have a very limited understanding of what goes on in a classroom, so they can’t imagine the vital labor our educators do for children and teenagers.
El Paso Matters: What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects or aspirations?
Narváez Varela: Yes! I’m working on a second young adult novel featuring a 16-year-old character named Amilcar, set in Ciudad Juárez and a fictional town in Texas. I don’t want to say more because it’s still me and Amilcar existing in a very unique, intimate place where nothing but discovery matters. This said, please do wish us patience, success and love as we continue our journey!
El Paso Matters: What other local authors do you recommend for our readers?
Narváez Varela: Our community is blessed by a wealth of talent, so the authors I recommend here are by no means the only ones whose work I enjoy reading: Yasmín Ramirez and Aldo Amparán, both of whom have recently published their first books (“¡Ándale, Prieta!” and “Brother Sleep,” respectively). I can’t forget the character from “Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, who’s the godfather of fronterizo literature. I really encourage everyone to visit Literarity’s (Book Shop) wall of local authors, and, while there, please, talk to Mr. Bill (Clark)! He’s a passionate advocate and connoisseur of local literature.